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NPR 7900.3D
Effective Date: May 01, 2017
Expiration Date: May 01, 2024
Printable Format (PDF)

Subject: Aircraft Operations Management

Responsible Office: Office of Safety and Mission Assurance

| TOC | ChangeHistory | Preface | Chapter1 | Chapter2 | Chapter3 | Chapter4 | Chapter5 | Chapter6 | Chapter7 | Chapter8 | Chapter9 | Chapter10 | Chapter11 | Chapter12 | Chapter13 | AppendixA | AppendixB | AppendixC | AppendixD | AppendixE | AppendixF | AppendixG | AppendixH | AppendixI | ALL |

Chapter 5. Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations

5.1 Policy

5.1.1 Background. UAS are aircraft and, therefore, shall comply with all Federal and Agency regulations pertaining to UAS, including operations, acquisition' and disposal. [563] Technological advances will continue to provide unprecedented leaps in UAS capability. NASA is primarily concerned with UAS technology as it applies to aeronautics, space science, and Earth science. Technology that permits the rapid dissemination of remote sensing data products will play an important role in this effort. While UAS capabilities offer a significant tool to capture data, UAS is an Agency asset and capability that will be managed within Agency internal controls.

5.1.2 Policy. Center Directors shall establish procedures to ensure that all UAS flights are properly approved, documented, and operated in accordance with this chapter. [564] Center Directors also shall ensure that UAS flightcrews and operations receive direct oversight by the Center's Flight Operations Office or through another Center with a Flight Operations Department. [565] All project managers will be made aware of this policy prior to any flight activity.

5.1.3 UAS Definition. In general, a UAS is a powered or unpowered aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, and can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely. UAS range from micro vehicles measuring inches in size and ounces in weight to large aircraft weighing more than 30,000 pounds. For example, a model or small UAS that weighs less than or equal to 55 pounds and whose top speed is less than or equal to 87 knots has fewer oversight requirements than a UAS that weighs more than 300 pounds and whose top speed is greater than 200 knots. Due to the diverse nature of UAS performance and interface, requirements may need to be adjusted to ensure the appropriate level of operational control. In all cases, waiver and oversight responsibility shall be in accordance with this NPR and applicable NASA HQ-approved Center guidelines. [566]

5.1.4 UAS Flightcrew Definition and Responsibilities. UAS flightcrew are responsible for the safe control and operation of the UAS and communications with Air Traffic Controllers. They shall be involved in all mission planning; complete prelaunch, mission, and recovery checklists; and assist in evaluating and disseminating in-flight data. [567] NASA utilizes the following definitions to define the human-vehicle interface for piloting positions and responsibilities for safe operations: Pilot-Radio Control Operator (PRCO). The RC Pilot (also called Safety Pilot or External Pilot) is an individual who operates an unmanned aircraft by means of a remotely located, manually operated radio-controlled flight management system (direct control by means of stick-to-surface interface). An RC Pilot also may perform crewmember duties of a safety (or external) pilot who acts as a fail-safe to an unmanned aircraft system that is normally controlled by a pilot-operator. The safety (or external) pilot flight control system may be either stand-alone or be modified to function as a buddy box. In the buddy box configuration, the safety (or external) pilot controls the unmanned aircraft through a ground control station (GCS) communication link protocol. All flight operations shall be within visual line of sight of the controlling pilot. [568] Pilot-Computer Operator (PCO). A pilot-operator (also called Ground Control Operator (GCO) or Internal Pilot) is an individual who manages the operation of an unmanned aircraft by means of the remote GCS. The pilot-operator typically controls the unmanned aircraft autonomously by means of computer interface with an onboard flight management system (fly-by-mouse) through a command and control communications link. Pilot-Manual Operator (PMO). Remote Pilot (also called Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA) or Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) Pilot) is an individual who operates a UAS by manual control in a remote GCS. The Remote Pilot typically manages the unmanned aircraft flight path through a command and control communication link using manual stick-and-rudder inputs, a forward-looking video camera feed, and a moving map display system located in the GCS. Observer. An individual who is a primary crew member for UAS flight operations. The observer serves as the flight safety monitor to ensure noninterference between the unmanned aircraft and nonparticipating aircraft by means of see and avoid. The observer may perform these duties either on the ground or in a chase aircraft while in direct communication with the controlling pilot. Daisy chain observer operations are limited to 5 NM between the pilot in command and the airborne unmanned aircraft. UAS Mission Commander (MC). The UAS MC exercises command over single NASA UAS or a formation of UAS. He/she is responsible for all phases of the assigned mission except those aspects of safety of flight that are related to the physical control of the aircraft and fall within the prerogatives of the PIC (unless the PIC and MC are the same individual).

a. The UAS MC shall understand the sections of 14 CFR Subpart E 61.105 and 61.107 that apply to all aircraft operations (public and civil) in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). [569]

b. Qualification as a NASA UAS MC requires a private pilot certificate or greater, military pilot rating, NASA pilot rating, or the completion of a formal military UAS training course where the UAS pilot has demonstrated an understanding of 14 CFR Subpart E 61.105 and 61.107.

c. If not qualified in type, UAS MCs shall receive all required ground training for the UAS under their purview. [570] NASA UAS Instrument Rating. This is certification that an individual is qualified to operate a NASA UAS under IFR. The holder of a NASA UAS Instrument Rating shall understand the sections of 14 CFR Subpart F 61.125 and 61.127 that apply to instrument flight operations (public and civil) in the NAS. [571] Qualification for a NASA instrument rating requires an FAA instrument rating, military pilot rating, NASA pilot rating, or the completion of a formal military UAS training course where the UAS pilot has demonstrated an understanding of 14 CFR Subpart F 61.125 and 61.127 as applied to instrument flight. Range Safety Officer (RSO). The RSO provides duties as assigned in accordance with NPR 8715.5 levied on UAS operations during FRR/Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review Board (AFSRB) reviews and during operations as required. UAS flightcrew. The UAS flightcrew can consist of MCs, pilots, observers or range safety officers assigned to the flight. All individuals report to the assigned MC. If an MC is not required, all individuals report to the PIC.

5.1.5 UAS Command and Control Systems. UAS flightcrews shall have the capability to command, control, and manage the UAS and to coordinate access and integration into the airspace utilized to complete the mission. [572] These systems include aircraft control and airspace control as discussed below. Aircraft Control. Aircraft control is the authority to direct the physical maneuvers of a UAS in flight or to direct a UAS to gather data or operate in a specific area. Airspace Control. Airspace control provides for the coordination, integration, and regulation of the use of a defined airspace and identification of all airspace users. Any airborne object that may interfere with the flight path or trajectory of any other object within the NAS airspace is of concern and requires airspace coordination and integration. Airspace control is the authority to direct the maneuvers of a UAS (along with other aircraft and airspace users) for the best use of the airspace. Airspace control is accomplished through established procedures for coordination of airspace by Air Traffic Control or range authorities. Principles and procedures of airspace control used in manned flight operations apply to UAS operations. UAS capable of long-distance flight are normally routed through existing air control points by airspace control agencies. Airspace control authority is inherent in the operator whose unit is responsible for particular blocks of airspace; positive separation between aircraft and UAS is required and is the responsibility of the PIC and airspace control agency. This may be accomplished by the following:

a. Activating temporary flight restriction areas (TFRs); Class D airspace or restricted operations zones (ROZs) for UAS takeoffs and landings; and mission areas or flight routes. ROZs are also known as restricted operations areas (ROAs).

b. Routing separation via existing air control points. Specific UAS routes may be created by connecting selected air control points.

c. Altitude separation, which can be effected by having block altitudes or by deconflicting the altitude at which the UAS is flying with other airspace users.

d. Time separation, which can be effected by having block times for UAS operations.

e. Any combination of the above, as required.

5.2 Planning

5.2.1 Before any deployment, considerable planning takes place well in advance of a UAS operation. UAS increase the workload on personnel assigned, who very often know little about the unique requirements of UAS integration in operations in CONUS or overseas. Coordination with appropriate agencies or countries shall occur as soon as the decision is made to employ a UAS. [573] Currently, all NASA UAS operations are conducted under NASA's Public Use authority in accordance with Public Law 106-181 and Title 49 U.S.C., Chapter 401. Under this authority NASA UAS may operate using one of five options:

a. Certificate of Authorization (COA) -- an authorization issued by the FAA to a public operator for a specific location and UAS activity.

b. NASA-FAA Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) -- an agreement between NASA and the FAA for certain UAS operations in uncontrolled airspace.

c. Special Use Airspace (i.e., Restricted Airspace) -- with the permission of the Controlling Authority.

d. International Airspace -- airspace outside the 12-nautical-mile limit of the United States and its territories under NASA's State Authority.

e. 14 CFR 107 -- FAA regulation for the operation of sUAS in the National Airspace System (NAS). Each of these five options have varying operating requirements, restrictions, and limitations. Regardless of the operating rule a NASA UAS or sUAS operates under, compliance with NASA policies is still required. The FAA is responsible for airspace management within the National Airspace System, commonly referred to as the NAS. If a UAS will be flown outside the boundaries of special-use airspace, sufficient time shall be allowed to process a COA request to the FAA to conduct UAS operations. [574] The FAA Administrator will issue a COA, which provides approval for flight within the requested airspace. A UAS cannot fly beyond the boundaries of special-use airspace without specific authorization of the FAA. An MOU with the local air traffic control facility is required to ensure that they and the UAS flightcrews have a complete understanding and agree upon the air traffic control procedures that will be used to ensure safe UAS operations in the operating area. If additional air traffic control services are required, the UAS operator may be asked to augment the local air traffic control facility with additional air traffic control personnel. Letter of Agreement (LOA). An LOA with local air facilities shall be completed to ensure that proper coordination of support requirements is understood and agreed upon. It will address:

a. Fuel and hazardous material storage.

b. Hangar facilities.

c. Runway use.

d. Any other logistical and support requirements. [575] The option to utilize 14 CFR 107 (Part 107), as all NASA UAS operations are conducted under NASA's Public Use authority in accordance with Public Law 106-181 and Title 49 U.S.C., Chapter 401, still requires the applicable UAS oversight in this NPR.

5.2.2 International Operations. Foreign governments are sensitive to the capabilities and valuable information that could be collected by UAS, as well as to the inherent risks associated with unmanned flight operations. As NASA aircraft, NASA UAS have State Aircraft status. UAS planners shall ensure that UAS operations are included at the outset of integration planning within host nation (HN) airspace. [576] Planners shall have a firm understanding of the UAS to be employed so that they can satisfy any protests or concerns from the HN. [577] The UAS planner shall work via the Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR) to gain diplomatic clearances prior to any UAS operations within their represented country. [578]

5.3 Preflight Planning

5.3.1 Operations Site. UAS managers and flightcrews shall ensure particular consideration is given to the location of the UAS operations site. [579] Depending on the UAS, an adequate runway may be required for safe UAS operations. At a minimum, a proper landing surface shall be available to safely recover the UAS upon completing its mission and consideration given to the distance from the UAS launch site to the area of operations (AO). [580] Many UAS are not particularly fast and require considerable time to fly to their mission area. The location of an adequate launch and recovery area and its distance to the AO and control station are very important considerations when employing a UAS. Availability of adequate roads or other transportation methods for resupply of fuel and other UAS support requirements are critical to sustained UAS operations. If the UAS is expected to move from one site to another, transportation support becomes increasingly important.

5.3.2 Weather. UAS managers and flightcrews at all times shall consider the expected weather conditions in the AO at the time of operations. [581] Many UAS cannot operate in inclement weather (e.g., high winds and precipitation or when the cloud layer is below the UAS's operating altitude).

5.3.3 Communication. UAS managers and flightcrews shall ensure effective command and control architecture is linked to the UAS. [582] Most UAS have a GCS, a tracking and control unit, a portable control station (PCS), and remote receiving stations. The UAS is manually controlled by a pilot from a control station or is programmed to fly independently under control of its autopilot. More than one control station may be used to increase the UAS's effective range or to control more than one UAS.

5.3.4 Mission Planning. UAS operations are conducted similarly to manned aviation operations. The mission planning process begins once the UAS has the authority to conduct the mission.

a. The UAS managers and the flightcrew shall study the assigned mission and plan for its operation. [583]

b. The maintenance crew shall begin preparation of the UAS and the UAS ground control system. [584]

c. Communications personnel shall ensure that the proper communication connectivity is provided to fulfill the mission. [585]

5.3.5 Route Planning. UAS missions shall be planned by the UAS flightcrew in close coordination with the Center's Flight Operations Office and the Range Safety Officer. [586] This is necessary to ensure there is no conflict with other flight activities and to identify other potential operational risks, including route-related risks that will be addressed in the FRR process.

5.3.6 In-flight Emergencies. During planning, sufficient attention shall be given to the possibility that an in-flight emergency may occur. [587] Particular attention should be given to the location of emergency landing sites if the UAS exits controlled flight and impacts the ground. Flight paths, minimum-risk routes, and other air management tools shall be included. [588] Loss of Link Procedures. When a UAS senses a significant delay or loss of the command uplink, the predetermined loss-of-link procedures shall be initiated to place the UAS on the return home profile or a suitable alternate route and recovery location. [589] The UAS return home or alternate profile is a preapproved route (at a preapproved altitude) to its preapproved return home or alternate site. During this emergency, the UAS pilot will attempt to reestablish communication with the UAS. Agency Mishap Notification. The Center Flight Operations Office shall incorporate mishap reporting responsibilities into the Center Mishap Response Plan, to include UAS-specific notification requirements. [590]

5.4 Flight Operations

5.4.1 Flight Brief. A flight brief that includes the flightcrew, a program representative, and a maintenance representative shall be conducted prior to all flights. Centers will develop briefing guides appropriate to the operations, which include at a minimum:

a. Weather update.

b. Program brief.

c. System update.

d. Emergency divert airfields.

e. Emergency procedures and terminology.

f. Mission profile. [591]

5.4.2 Takeoff Method. The maintenance crew readies the UAS for launch as the flightcrew performs systems checks to ensure that systems perform in accordance with operating procedures. Systems checks shall include an independent means to verify waypoints entered into a navigational system prior to takeoff. [592] If a suitable runway is available, the UAS operator may perform a conventional rolling takeoff. The length of runway required depends on the UAS. If a suitable runway is not available, then an alternate launch method shall be used. [593]

5.4.3 Preparing for Recovery. An adequate surface area shall be available for a safe landing for the UAS and safely accessible to personnel. [594] Upon return to the UAS operations site, flight and maintenance crews prepare for UAS recovery. The UAS recovery checklist shall be adhered to in accordance with the operations manual. [595]

5.5 Airworthiness Reviews

5.5.1 Centers shall conduct Airworthiness Reviews to establish the airworthiness and evaluate the safety of the aircraft in accordance with the Center processes outlined in Chapter 2 and will include Range Safety personnel. [596]

5.5.2 The following additional topics shall be addressed by a NASA Airworthiness Review to assess the risks associated with a UAS flight program:

a. General overview of UAS.

b. Communication links and frequency management plan.

c. Flight control system and configuration control procedures.

d. Backup systems and procedures.

e. Flight terminations systems, including ground abort. [597] Airworthiness certificate limitations. UAS shall operate only in airspace for which the degree of airworthiness allows. [598] The airworthiness statement shall specifically clear each UAS for the appropriate Mission Qualification Standards (MQS) level (as defined in section [599 A UAS will hold either an airworthiness statement or airworthiness certificate in accordance with the requirements defined in Section 5.8.

5.5.3 Public Safety. The program/project manager shall limit the assessed collective risk associated with aerospace vehicle operation and ensure that the probability of doing harm to a member of the general public is not greater than the criteria established by NPR 8715.5. [600] The ability to achieve this level of protection can be demonstrated through a combination of analysis, tests, simulations, use of redundancy in design, and flight operational procedures.

5.5.4 Flight Readiness Reviews/Operational Readiness Reviews shall be conducted in accordance with Chapter 3 of this manual with additional UAS-specific personnel. [601]

5.6 UAS Flightcrew Requirements

5.6.1 Qualifications and Designation. UAS flightcrew members shall become qualified in accordance with written Center standards. [602] The Center's Chief of Flight Operations, with the concurrence of the Center Director, shall designate UAS pilots for the specific type of UAS they operate. [603] The Center's Chief of Flight Operations shall ensure that each UAS flightcrew possesses an adequate level of training and experience to perform the duties of the designated positions. [604] Overall qualifications for the designations are made based on flightcrew's overall flight experience, experience in similar types of UAS aircraft, experience in the actual UAS aircraft type, other training, and demonstrated performance. Designated UAS pilots are those who perform UAS piloting duties as a part of their official position descriptions, to fulfill NASA contract requirements, or in accordance with an interagency agreement.

5.6.2 Training. Initial UAS training shall be documented by each Center in accordance with this chapter with the approval of the Center's Chief of Flight Operations. [605]. Recurrent training shall be Center-developed and Chief of Flight Operations-approved. [606] The training program may be tailored to consider previous experience in UAS aircraft, currency in similar types of UAS aircraft, previous training background, and availability of other resources to ensure an adequate level of training. Depending on the category of the UAS pilot, qualification training may be conducted under the direction of a military, civilian, or NASA UAS IP. Qualification training will vary with the UAS type, but will normally include:

a. Ground training (including UAS GCS checkout), handbook study, attendance at formal UAS aircraft training programs, emergency procedure training, and the performance of a UAS aircraft written examination (open book).

b. Simulator training, if available, including normal and emergency procedure training.

c. UAS aircraft checkout flights, including a prescribed number of UAS flights and landings (if applicable) under the supervision of a UAS IP.

d. A mission profile flight monitored by a UAS IP to obtain full UAS mission qualification.

e. In the case of prototype, experimental, or research UAS aircraft for which no formal schools are available, the services of the designers and the manufacturer's best qualified personnel shall be utilized to brief and familiarize the UAS pilots with the aircraft, UAS aircraft systems, and GCSs. [607] In addition, existing UAS simulators and UAS aircraft of a similar nature will be used to train pilots prior to flying a UAS research vehicle. [608] UAS Mission Qualification Standards (MQS). Each UAS crew shall have the knowledge and knowledge-based skills needed to safely conduct flight in the required airspace and flight conditions. [609] This includes being interoperable with other air assets including manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, and ATC agencies that exist in the same class of airspace. The MQS listed below are used to correlate NASA UAS operational certification requirements with airspace classes and flight profiles of varying complexity. It is important to note that MQS are independent of vehicle type/class and only depend on the airspace and flight profiles required for the mission.

a. MQS Level I. VFR conditions below 1200 feet AGL in Class E, G, or special use airspace (or international equivalents). UAS Pilots shall complete a Center-developed training course on airspace procedures, but no other formal certification is required. [610] Operations are restricted to VLOS/daisy chain operations.

b. MQS Level II. VFR conditions above 1200 feet AGL and below 18,000 feet MSL (or applicable international transition altitude) in all applicable classes of airspace or in special use airspace at any altitude. UAS Pilots at this level require a designated MC assigned to the flight. It is permissible for UAS Pilots to conduct flight in MQS Level II conditions under the authority of the UAS MC.

c. MQS Level III. Any flight conducted under IFR. UAS Operations at this level requires a designated MC assigned to the flight with a NASA UAS instrument rating. It is permissible for UAS pilots to operate under the authority of the instrument rated MC. Evaluation: All UAS pilots shall complete a Center-developed and administered annual flight check and be certified as qualified by a designated authority from the Chief of Flight Operations Office. [611] Holders of a NASA UAS instrument rating shall pass a Center-developed UAS instrument rating exam. [612] Medical. UAS MCs and observers shall pass an annual FAA Third-Class medical exam or NASA / Military equivalent with vision correctable to 20/20 (as determined by an FAA AME or NASA flight surgeon). [613] UAS Pilots are required to meet this same standard only if they are operating in MQS level II or III conditions under the supervision of an MC. Fully qualified NASA pilots may be assigned as UAS pilots, but for UAS pilots to fly manned NASA aircraft, they shall meet NASA pilot qualification minimums. [614] Training for all members of the UAS flightcrew shall include crew resource management training. [615] UAS Currency. Currency is dependent on the category of UAS pilot. Center Directors have the authority to establish and approve UAS flight currency requirements. These include specific requirements established for particular UAS flight research programs and UAS aircraft. Records of qualification and flight evaluation are required. NASA UAS flight time for MQS level II and III operations shall be kept separate from NASA manned aircraft flight time, by type, in NAMIS. [616] A review of UAS pilot and crew qualifications shall be made prior to flight assignment to ensure that prerequisites for the intended mission are met. [617] A PIC shall be designated for all NASA UAS flight operations and is responsible for safe flight conduct. [618] When transferring from one control mode to another (i.e., Pilot Operator to RC Pilot), a new PIC shall be declared and PIC responsibilities be transferred when handing off from one control room to another MC or in all cases, a positive three-way change of control is required. [619] The PIC has the responsibility to ensure appropriate communications are completed with ATC. Center directors shall establish policy to standardize all UAS control transfers. [620]

5.7 UAS Classifications

5.7.1 NASA UAS are divided into three categories (Category I, II, and III) based on aircraft takeoff gross weight, maximum airspeed in level flight, and class. If a vehicle's weight and operating airspeed fall under two different categories, the most restrictive guidance will be used. UAS that do not fully meet the aircraft characteristics identified in these matrices may require a waiver to meet a desired category. In all cases waiver authority is in accordance with guidelines approved by this NPR.

5.7.2 Category I UAS general characteristics:

Cat I Model or sUAS (Micro-Small)
Weight Takeoff gross weight does not exceed 55 lb.
Airspeed Maximum airspeed in level flight does not exceed 87 KIAS.
Airworthiness Aircraft are required to have an airworthiness statement provided by a designated NASA Flight Operation office.
Configuration Management sUAS aircraft in this category typically operate on a fly to failure maintenance schedule. Flight-critical parts will be inspected at least once per day, prior to flight activities--normally accomplished during the first preflight of the day. An appropriate maintenance inspection schedule will be developed for critical components. Individual aircraft log books will be maintained for each aircraft.
Safety Only requirements levied by the FRR/AFSRB will be required for this category of aircraft, except for cases in which the aircraft caused injury to people or property reaching NPR 8621.1 cost thresholds.

5.7.3 Category II UAS general characteristics:

Cat II sUAS (Small-Medium)
Weight Takeoff gross weight exceeds 55 lb but does not exceed 330 lb.
Airspeed Maximum airspeed in level flight does not exceed 200 KIAS.
Airworthiness Aircraft need to have an airworthiness statement provided by a designated NASA Flight Operation office.
Configuration Management sUAS aircraft in this category typically operate under a program maintenance plan or planned maintenance schedule. Flight-critical parts will be inspected at least once per day, prior to flight activities--normally accomplished during the first preflight of the day. An appropriate maintenance inspection schedule will be developed for critical components. Individual aircraft log books will be maintained for each aircraft.
Safety System safety analysis will be an integral part of system operation. A hazard analysis and accepted risk list will be developed. The Center flight safety office will review and approve the analyses. Mishap reporting in accordance with NPR 8621.1.

5.7.4 Category III UAS general characteristics:

Cat III UAS (Medium-Large)
Weight Takeoff gross weight exceeds 330 lb.
Airspeed Maximum airspeed in level flight may exceed 200 KIAS.
Airworthiness Aircraft need to have a Certificate of Airworthiness provided by a designated NASA Flight Operation office. NASA Center airworthiness and flight safety review and a flight readiness review are required. Any subsequent system modifications require technical review and FRR/AFSRB in accordance with Center requirements.
Configuration Management Aircraft maintenance will be accomplished in accordance with this NPR and applicable NASA guidance and managed in NAMIS.
Safety Accomplished in accordance with this NPR, NPR 8621.1, and applicable NASA and Center-developed reporting procedures.

| TOC | ChangeHistory | Preface | Chapter1 | Chapter2 | Chapter3 | Chapter4 | Chapter5 | Chapter6 | Chapter7 | Chapter8 | Chapter9 | Chapter10 | Chapter11 | Chapter12 | Chapter13 | AppendixA | AppendixB | AppendixC | AppendixD | AppendixE | AppendixF | AppendixG | AppendixH | AppendixI | ALL |
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